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ONE PIECE and the Real Myth of the Kobold

ONE PIECE and the Real Myth of the Kobold

This year marks the 20th anniversary of Eiichiro Oda’s One Piece, the most popular manga in the world. It’s a fantastic series full of crazy adventures and extremely emotional stories that I sincerely can’t recommend hard enough. And though I’m a huge fan now, I have to admit that it hasn’t always been on my radar. For the longest time I couldn’t get into it, because I didn’t care for the overly-cartoony art style. But once I pushed past that and delved further into One Piece’s story, I found that many of Oda’s adventures moved me more deeply than any other series. There are a lot of reasons as to why this is, but I think that a good chunk of it comes from Oda’s knack for telling meaningful, heartfelt stories through simple uses of real seafaring lessons. For me, the most compelling example of this is his tale of the Germanic sprite, the Kobold.

merry

Straw Hat Luffy’s pirate adventure begins aboard his first ship, The Going Merry. Compared to the other more traditionally designed ships in the series, Merry is a goofy little boat with a derpy-looking cartoon ram on the front that successfully serves to make the gang stand out from other pirates. And they love it! For most of the series, The Going Merry carries Luffy’s gang through their crazy adventures with hardly a second thought given to its purpose beyond just a reliable vehicle. However, as the stakes grow higher in the story, Merry’s role eventually changes dramatically. After several years at sea, the Straw Hat crew comes to love their ship so much that it literally grows a soul and takes the form of a water sprite that repairs the ship when nobody is looking.

At first glance this may seem like a typical fantasy trope–inanimate objects become sentient all the time in cartoons, like The Brave Little Toaster or Toy Story. But the Going Merry is actually based on the real accounts of the Kobold, or more specifically, the Klabautermann.

going merry

Real belief in these spirits dates all the way back to 1770. Traditionally, Kobolds of the sea would live onboard and take care of the ship and the crew. They would pump water from the hold, plug up any holes, rescue men that were lost overboard, and even manage the cargo when no one was looking. It was even believed that it was the power of the Kobolds that kept ships from sinking in times of crisis, and if you ever saw them, your ship was doomed to sink. Belief was so strong that some accounts have captains leaving out their best food and wines for the Kobolds to enjoy, while other accounts have crews tossing their captains overboard for denying they exist.

Though many stories have been told over the centuries of both good and bad Kobolds, it’s the benevolent Kobold that makes the Going Merry one of the most popular characters in One Piece.

Klabautermann

Eventually the Going Merry takes so much damage (due to its crew not having any sailing experience) that it can no longer keep together. One night, Usopp catches a glimpse of the spirit repairing the ship and tells ship-builder Franky, who immediately recognizes what it is. He tells Usopp the real legend as we know it—that it’s a type of Kobold called a Klabautermann—a manifestation of the ship’s soul that only comes about when the ship is truly loved. Its final job is to see its crew to one last island before sinking into the ocean. And true to the myth regarding what happens when the Kobold of a ship is seen, the Going Merry has one last adventure before breaking down completely. The Straw Hats have a Viking funeral for the remains and Merry actually speaks to them, apologizing for not being able to continue their adventures. The scene is made even more powerful with Luffy screaming a tearful apology to the one who helped him the most on his journey to become King of the Pirates.

As a reader, it’s this kind of characterization and attention to detail that lends to memorable and compelling storytelling. In the wacky world that is One Piece, Oda could have easily made the ship a personified cartoon or just had the crew treat it like it was alive. Instead, he took the time to weave real Kobold lore into a now living character. Suddenly Merry was real and, like Luffy, I didn’t want to let it go. In truth, when Merry was finally sent off, I was upset and crying over how it had become such an essential part of my experience with the series. It wasn’t just a setting or a vehicle anymore, as I came to love it just like the Straw Hats—and exactly like real sailors become attached to their own ships.

So don’t be fooled by the overly cartoony art style. One Piece surprisingly teaches serious and valuable lessons about life and seafaring, often using real nautical folklore. At its core the story of The Going Merry is just a simple lesson in taking care of your belongings, but the real myth of the Kobold and Merry’s sacrifice enriches it with an extra layer of emotional depth that makes it truly unforgettable. And of course, this is only one facet of what makes One Piece great since it’s such a sprawling epic, but for me, it’s these kinds of specific details that keep it continuously at the top of my list.

Do you have a favorite One Piece moment? Tell us about it in the comments below.

One Piece is currently simulcasting on Crunchyroll and is also available on Hulu. The English manga can be found in your local bookstores.

Images: Weekly Shonen Jump, Viz Media
Animated Gifs and Video:  Toei Animation

Alex Tisdale is a writer and illustrator who runs on coffee and pop culture. You can find him covered in ink and rambling on his website or on Twitter.

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